What if you could give someone you love one more hour of life? The passion of love bursting into flame is more powerful than death, stronger than the grave.
THE OLD MARKET
I had seen the old woman alone at the entrance when we went through earlier in the day. We’d worked our way to the back of the outdoor market, then through all the side rows and offshoots. Peter was one step behind me, his arms draped with loops of full bags. He didn’t like to shop but had made it through a whole day—so far—without complaint. I guess thanks to it being our honeymoon. I smiled at him, and he smiled back. The packing I’d have to do this evening would suck, but today was our last day. Back to Chicago tomorrow and then on Monday, returning to the ordinary world and daily grind. This time as newlyweds in our own apartment.
Peter had been checking his watch—a subtle ‘can we leave soon’ message—for the past thirty minutes, so I headed back toward the only entrance and exit.
That morning the woman had had only one item, and I thought she waited for someone else or hadn’t unpacked more to set out. There was still just one thing before her; an old candlestick with a crooked candle in the middle of her table. The woman’s eyes did not wander. She sat so still, not trying to catch people’s eye or engage them in conversation to draw them to her table, as did the other vendors. It didn’t seem to matter if she sold the candlestick or not. I slowed as we approached her.
“Amanda, come on.….” Peter’s low mutter was the first sign of impatience as he caught up to where I stopped.
The woman studied me without expression. In her eyes, deep wrinkles framing them was such a depth of sorrow it caught my breath. The bustling noise of the surrounding people faded into quiet just for the woman and me.
“Hello,” I smiled. The old woman nodded without speaking. “Is this all you have for sale?”
“All I offer.”
I picked up the candlestick. Surprised at its heaviness, there was nothing remarkable otherwise. Dull bronze or tarnished brass and an off-kilter candle of yellowed wax. I rubbed my thumb over the dry surface, and pieces flaked off. But the wick seemed new, never lit, and not brittle like the wax. I turned the candlestick upside-down and checked the base. Solid, but in the center was a rectangular compartment, a cover hinged on one side, with a tiny latch. I tried to free the fastener.
“That will only open for the owner,” the woman’s smile showed the glint of bright dentures far younger than she.
“That’s for the possessor to discover.”
“Aren’t you the owner?”
“Why do you want to know what’s inside?” Those eyes fixed on me as she continued, “Do you like this candlestick?”
“Needs a good polishing,” the woman’s grin grew at my awkward haggling. “Too bad you don’t have another to make a pair.”
“That candle was used.” The smile was gone, and some emotion shadowed her eyes, darkening them more. Something flickered in them when she looked at the candlestick in my hand, then to my face, and on to Peter’s.
“You can buy another candle. What happened to the other candlestick?”
“It did what it was created for, and all I… all we asked,” she stood, “this is all I have left.”
I didn’t follow what she meant and thought, time to leave. With frequent glances at me, Peter had been looking at the contents of the next table over; an assortment of hand-carved salt and paper shakers. I’d put him through enough for today and started to set the candlestick down. Something in its heft rooted me, and without meaning to, my grip tightened. Peter still fidgeted, moving the shopping bags from hand to hand. He loved me, and I loved him more than anything. The certainty surged through me more than during our marriage ceremony. “How old is it?”
The woman shrugged. “My husband,” the softer melancholy came back and caught at her words, “bought the set many years ago from a woman who told him a story. Stories,” she shook her head, “were always his weakness. But it was also practical. When we were young, we often dined by candlelight as much to save money as because he was such a romantic man.”
As she spoke, the old woman stroked the wedding band on her gnarled hand. Once upon a time, it must have been a better fit with the fullness and firmness of youth. With the finger shrunken with age, only a swollen arthritic knuckle kept the ring on her hand.
“How long have you been married?”
“He died suddenly,” she reached out and touched the candlestick I still held, “today is a week past. We were married for sixty-five years.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” I glanced at Peter, who stood beside me with a tired smile and thought of our wedding just seven days before. For a moment, six heartbeats—I felt each one—I wondered about living with and loving him for sixty-five more years. Nothing would make me happier.
“We had a full life together… and even after.”
I didn’t follow the last part, but the woman smiled again. “Why do you want to sell such a sweet reminder of your husband?”
“He is still here,” she touched her head and her heart leaving the hand over a now withered but once full bosom, “that’s all I need.”
“What about leaving it to your children?”
Grief dimmed her smile again. “We were not so fortunate… my daughter died at birth, and we could not have more.”
“I’m so sorry.” I set the candlestick down to open my purse, deciding a last honeymoon souvenir, this one, would be fitting.
The woman picked it up, “And this… I want to go to someone young.” Her eyes shifted from me to Peter, who stood there paying attention with bags now at his feet, “Young and in love.”
Peter had his wallet in his hand, “How much?”
“Nothing.” Cradling the candlestick in her hands, the old woman passed it to me, but her smile was for Peter.
“I have to pay you something,” I insisted.
“No,” and a sternness came into her eyes that didn’t harden the smile on her lips, “you don’t. A gift to you.”
“Thank you,” was all I could say. The old woman’s expression brushed my heart. I knew it was a grandmother-not-to-be’s tenderness for a granddaughter she never had. I handed the candlestick to Peter as the woman folded the cloth on her table.
Seeing Peter inspect the cover and latch at the base of the candle, she said, “It will open for you when love and the need are the strongest,” her eyes glistened, “as its mate did for me.” As she turned to put the folded tablecloth in a large bag on the ground beside her chair, she whispered, “And so I had him, my love, for one more hour… to say our goodbyes.”
Peter had gathered our things, putting the candlestick in one of the canvas bags. Before the woman turned away, I leaned across the empty table and touched her arm at the elbow. She glanced at me, and I asked, “You say you bought this when you were married?”
“Yes,” and with a last look into my eyes, she turned away, “on our honeymoon.” She walked into the crowd and was soon out of sight.
* * *
Bags were everywhere. Amanda had unpacked their clothes and luggage over the weekend, but the things they had bought were still in boxes and store bags. The one thing she noticed that had come out of the bags was the candlestick. She hadn’t even thought about the old woman in the hustle of flying back home and seeing family. But her candlestick was on the mantle over one of those artificial meant-to-look-like-the-real-thing fireplaces.
Amanda turned to Peter, who had, unlike her, had the day off, “That’s all you unpacked?”
“The only thing I was sure of where you’d want it to go.” He walked over to the window and studied the street three floors below. “I still don’t like this area.”
“I’ll be fine.” Before they took the lease, she had seen the high crime rate trending down. Still, Peter had concerns. But this location was the closest compromise of affordability and nearness to the metro and their work.
Peter turned from the window. “As soon as I can finagle a change, I’ll get off the night shift.”
But they both knew they needed the higher pay. At least until they paid off bills, which would take longer, she contemplated the bags of things they had bought on their honeymoon.
* * *
The woman with the long legs caught the young man’s eye. She rode the subway with style, graceful like an old Hollywood movie star among everyday people. He scratched at the coarse growth of hair that covered his cheeks and throat in patches and elbowed his friend, who lifted his eyes from his phone. He cocked his head toward the woman just down from them. “Check her out… legs in the blue dress.”
Amanda was wearing the pearls Peter had given her even though she had promised never to wear them without him with her. But it was a short week and a half-day Thursday for Tom, the senior partner’s office birthday party. She was so happy and wanted to finally show them to Sue, her best friend at the office. Besides, she was headed home in the mid-afternoon. No one would bother her in broad daylight.
The two men followed her when she got off.
With the coming three-day weekend—the first long weekend since their honeymoon four months ago—on her mind, Amanda neglected to scan the area as Peter had told her to do when going to and from the station. She entered their building, bypassed the elevator, and headed for the stairs. It’s great for the legs, Amanda thought. Feeling that good burn in her calves as she went up the steps, she did not hear the rustling sound of the two men moving almost as fast to catch up with her. They did. Right as she opened the door to the apartment.
* * *
Peter was excited, not just because he was off—no work tonight—a pleasant surprise when he’d shown up for his shift. The promotion he hadn’t told Amanda about had come through. Starting Monday, no more night shifts and a 20% raise. Hallelujah… they’d have breathing room and could save money toward buying a proper house with a yard. Everything they’d hoped for and dreamed. He loped up the stairs to the third floor. Their apartment was just across from the landing. Keys in hand, he unlocked the door and stepped inside.
* * *
“We got time,” the scraggly bearded man said, “They ain’t going to complain,” he glanced down at the dead woman and dying man. “Bitch,” rubbing his shoulder, he kicked the candlestick gripped in the woman’s hand, but it didn’t loosen. The two men split and pocketed the man and woman’s cash. The pearls were smeared with blood. He walked to the kitchen sink to wash them and didn’t see the dying man stir. Hearing a clatter, he stepped into the hallway to call out to his partner, rummaging through the apartment, “Hey, you wanna be quieter… you find anything else?”
* * *
Peter heard them, one in the kitchen and the other in the bedroom, and tasted bitter blood. He hadn’t been there to save Amanda, a worse bitterness. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t breathing. The pool of blood had expanded from under her body from where he lay. His own grew to touch hers.
God, how I love you was all Peter could think as his vision flickered. His head lay next to the fireplace. Amanda’s right hand held the candlestick she had grabbed from the mantle. Staring at the bottom of the base, he remembered the old woman’s words: ‘It will open for you when love and the need are the strongest.’
Not sure what he was doing or why… it took what strength he had left to pull himself toward Amanda. He couldn’t free the candlestick from her hand but could lift it to see the latch. It opened. Inside was a rolled-up piece of paper. Not paper… parchment. He slid it out to read the writing.
Time within the candle wax
you hold now in your hand.
Sixty minutes in the molten drops
like hourglass grains of sand.
The wick, when kindled for one you love
gives life for that single span.
Not enough to live your dreams
but enough for a moment planned.
Light it with your heart’s last flame
to bring back at your command,
a loved one from what was death.
Now filled with life’s fire fanned.
The matches from the mantle were on the floor, too. Everything was slipping away as he fumbled with the box. Getting one out, the first wouldn’t strike and snapped. A black veil came down as he got another and struck the match. He held the flame to the wick. Dropping the burnt match, he held Amanda’s hand in his left as his right wrote on the tile.
* * *
“What’s the blob wrapped around her hand?”
“Metal melted around the fist, but it didn’t burn her.” The medical examiner stood, “She matches the identification upstairs for Amanda Mickson.”
“What’s her body doing down here on the street with this mook?” The homicide detective nudged with his foot the body of what had been a scruffy-faced man. “While her husband’s body is upstairs, his throat half slashed open, and another man dead in the bedroom with his head bashed like this guy?” He toe’d the body again.
“Now, here’s the thing,” the examiner took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “Where’s the blood?”
“What you mean, where’s the blood? There’s blood all over that guy?” He kneeled and pointed at the mook.
“That’s his blood… I’m saying Amanda Mickson’s. Her jugular was cut. I checked, and she’s bone dry.”
“What?” He checked his wristwatch, “Been a long fuckin’ day; what are you saying?”
“I’m saying Amanda Mickson is down here and did this guy in, busted his head open. But all her blood is upstairs. No way she comes down all this way, chasing this guy, catches and kills him.”
The detective shrugged, “Don’t know, but I think the two fuckers deserved what they got.” He had seen upstairs on the floor. Someone had written, had to be Peter Mickson, in blood: ‘Read the note from the candle. I love you, Amanda…’ and surrounded with a heart.
“I think she was dead before her husband. But I won’t know for sure until I get them on the table,” the ME shook his head. Not sure what to think or how he would write this up, he beckoned for the waiting men to bag her. “Why would he leave a message for his dead wife?”
“Don’t know… but seems she didn’t wait for no judge and jury,” the detective grunted as he stood. “Let’s go upstairs; I want to see the note again.”
The medical examiner turned to him, “I read that, and it made me think of something. You recall your Bible?” At the detective’s puzzled expression, the ME shook his head and continued, “A line from the Old Testament in the Song of Solomon:
The passion of love
bursting into flame
is more powerful than death,
stronger than the grave.”
# # #